I love music. There’s a song for every mood, an album to blast in the car or to quietly lull you to sleep. Music serves as the backbone of my memories, reminding me of beautiful, sad, sweet, happy moments. We’re lucky to live in a time when music is so prevalent and we have so much from which to choose. But this also begs the question: as Christians, how should we be consuming music? Can we listen to “secular” music? Should we listen to explicit music?
No such thing as secular
If you’re familiar with Think Christian, you know our tagline: “there’s no such thing as secular.” With each piece of pop culture we examine, we strive to answer these three questions:
- Does it echo the gospel in some fashion?
- Does it evidence our need for the good news?
- Does it contradict our understanding of the world in a way that deserves a loving response?
Music is one of the main topics covered at TC, including albums that contain explicit language or lyrics. As Christians, we are called to use discernment when engaging with pop culture. It’s especially important to remember that in the context of explicit lyrics. As we’ll explore in this article, there can be meaning behind the choice to include explicit words in songs. However, this is not the case with all explicit language. It’s our job to discern if pop culture is beneficial to us, as Christians, and if we can glimpse gospel truths from it.
We do not disregard pop culture simply because it contains explicit words, but look below the surface to see how it relates back to those three pillar questions. God created the world and everything in it; at TC, we see it as our job to help interpret all facets of this creation through a biblical lens. We use discernment to look for biblical truths and think critically about how messages found in pop culture could apply to our own lives as Christians.
Part of our world
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:14-16)
As Christians, we are called to be in community. We are told to love one another, provide fellowship, and go out into the world among believers and nonbelievers. Listening to different kinds of music offers a way for us to learn about our neighbors. Music often serves as a reflection on life—a meditation on love, loss, and everything in between. By choosing to deliberately expose ourselves to different types of music, we feel the full spectrum of human emotion. We learn about the circumstances our neighbors are facing around the world.
At first glance, we may be tempted to completely disregard the provocative work of someone like Cardi B. However, in listening to her story as she tells it in her music, we can also recognize how her work is impacted by her experience of struggle and abuse. We can also understand how she tries to use her platform to advocate that women be treated with respect and dignity. Chance the Rapper wrote “I Might Need Security,” which is centered around a specific curse word, as a protest song. Lorde and Taylor Swift have both written COVID albums that deal with isolation, loss, and loneliness, sometimes in frank ways. If we were to ignore this music simply due to its explicit material, we would miss out on an opportunity to understand the plight of our neighbors. How can we love and pray for those around the world if we don’t know what they’re going through?
It’s our job to discern if pop culture is beneficial to us, as Christians, and if we can glimpse gospel truths from it.
Finding biblical truths
Music is a form of poetry, a way to express our purest, deepest emotions. We can find this emotional expression in the Bible, too. We can turn to the book of Psalms to find joy, sadness, anger, betrayal, and hope percolating through the words of the psalmists. In Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “The Psalms are, in a sense, God’s way of holding space for us. They invite us to rejoice, wrestle, cry, complain, offer thanks, and shout obscenities before our Maker without self-consciousness and without fear.” In Psalm 77, the poet writes, “Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” We also feel David’s anger when he declares, in Psalm 55, “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them.” Evans explained that even Jesus turned to Psalm 22 to express his emotions when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” She writes, “[W]hen all hope was lost and the darkness overwhelmed, only poetry would do.”
In my position as a Social Media Specialist at ReFrame Ministries, I answer many prayer requests across our social platforms. Some of these are filled with explicit language. This is extreme language we may not choose to use in our own lives, but those writing to our ministry use it to express heightened emotions. These prayer requests come from people who are deeply hurting. We need only to look to the Psalms to see, hear, and read about such emotions: hate, love, joy, anger, praise, anguish. The psalmists yell at God, wrestle with their emotions, and put their words of anger into prayers. Perhaps that’s why I connected so deeply to Olivia Rodrigo’s lyrics from “happier”: “and do you tell her she’s the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen? / an eternal love bulls*** you know you’ll never mean.” Even though we know we’re loved eternally by God, the deepest, darkest, hardest moments of our lives deserve outlets and spaces to wrestle with our emotions.
Not all explicit music deserves our attention, especially when it demeans, discredits, and dishonors God and others. Yet there are times when explicit music gives us an opportunity to learn about the circumstances of our neighbors. At other times, it expresses urgent emotions, much like the Psalms in the Bible. Growing up as a musician, a musical theater kid, and a frequent concertgoer, music has played an integral part in my life. I’ve turned to it in times of joy, sadness, anger, and elation. It’s a place where I go to feel closer to God, both to praise him and to sit in contemplation of the beautiful world—and all of the emotions in it—that he created.